Last week, the unthinkable happened to a child. You may have heard about the 7 year old boy (Artyem Saviliev) whose adoptive family “sent him back” to Russia, the country of his birth, 6 months after he was brought home by his “forever family.” Alone. From Tennessee to Russia by himself. The boy is now under the protection of the Russian government.
To level set, once an adoption, any adoption in the US, is finalized the adoptive parents are the legal parents. That is, if it’s illegal to abandon or abuse your biological child, it’s illegal to do so to your adoptive child. Parents, all of ’em, are responsible for their children (regardless of how difficult)
Naturally, the Russian government is also outraged and it is very likely that adoptions from Russia will slow or halt — temporarily or permanently. According to Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode column
Russian Foreign Minister Sergev Lavrov responded this morning by demanding that all Russia-to-United States adoptions be frozen. That chill will likely affect hundreds of American families; there were 1,600 Russian children adopted in the U.S. last year.
NowDepartment of State officials are off to Russia to convince the Russians not to stop international adoptions. Thousands of adoptions from the US alone are likely in progress. (This is a personal irony for me because the same US Department of State was silent when the Guatemalan government closed adoptions while a thousand adoptions were still in progress back in 2007.)
The adoption, especially the international adoption, community is in an uproar about this news. The Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCIC) released a statement:
It should be recognized that this tragedy is an isolated incident of abuse and not representative of the more than 100,000 adoptions completed each year by American citizens. Further, we must also note that all children residing in the United States, regardless of their country of birth or adopted status are provided with the same protections and rights.
It is our understanding that these right and protections are being enforced by the appropriate elements of the United States and Russian governments, including the U.S. Dept of State, Tennessee Child Protection, and Law Enforcement. Joint Council fully supports the actions of the Russian and United States governments to ensure the safety of the child and that aggressive action against the individuals involved is taken.
So what are the concerns? Well, as many of you know, adoption is always is a process of adjustment – one of loss and joy – for the child (the family too, but the child is the focus here). Adopting a child older than 1 year is very different from adopting an infant or an older baby. Adopting a child who has language and perhaps years of memories (of family life, trauma, etc), reads, and writes is very different from adopting a toddler. And, a child who has spent time in an orphanage has different challenges than a child who has not spent time in an institution. All of these things were true in the case of this 7 year old Russian boy who was adopted 6 months ago.
One of the key challenges is the disruption (maybe multiple disruptions) to the attachment cycle — the way by which we learn to bond and trust our caretakers. Though kids are resilient, the disruption of this cycle, in their birth family, in relatives homes and foster care and then in state care/orphanages can take its toll.
During the process of adopting my kids, I learned that the age that a child comes home to you is the length of time that it will take that child to adjust to living with you. Not to catch up developmentally or emotionally. Just to get used to living in his new adoptive family. I saw this happen in my own family. For baby R, who was 13 months old, it took about 1 year for her to adjust to us. After 2 years, she is now really comfortable and attached to everyone. My son on the other hand, came to us when he was 7 months old. His adjustment time was less than a year. I think the age of their adoption affects how each of them experiences change. My son is very easy going; baby R, not so much.
So, six months in and the family was ready to give up? Why did they not expect the process of bonding with this child and him to them to take longer, much longer? Why didn’t they have support to help them in this challenging process. These questions are typically addressed by the adoptive family’s adoption agency and social worker (the person who performs the home study). This isn’t easy stuff and one has to learn how to parent a child who has experienced attachment issues, to teach them how to trust, to attach. I recently read Parenting the Hurt Child by an expert in the field of adoption and attachment, Gregory Keck, that explains, in great detail, about how parents can implement parenting methods to address a child’s attachment issues.
Etta Lappen Davis, another child welfare professional, expressed her concerns about the family’s adoption process which summarizes the questions that the Henson case raises:
Here are some questions whose answers would help to identify how this tragic outcome might have been averted:
· What was Ms. Hansen’s motivation to adopt?
· What education and training did she receive?
· What were the qualifications of the home study worker? How many home study visits and meetings occurred? What questions were asked and issues explored? Were any difficulties identified?
· What did Ms. Hansen understand about the inherent risks of adopting an older child? Did she understand the challenges of being a single adoptive mother?
· What was her understanding of the losses that a child of Artyom’s age experiences when leaving his country of birth and everything familiar to him? What did her placement agency and home study provider teach her about the expected adjustment difficulties a child would experience and what she could do to mitigate them?
· What information did Ms. Hansen receive about Artyom? Was the information honest and complete? Was there a history of abuse? Did she have ample time to consider the referral? Did she have the opportunity to seek consultation with medical and mental health professionals about the referral?
· Did Ms. Hansen have plans for support and for seeking assistance, if needed, after placement?
· Did she understand cultural identity? Did she understand the ramifications of changing Artyom’s name? Were translators available during Artyom’s first months in the US? What opportunities did he have to be with Russian speakers and role models?
· What was the nature of the post-adoption visit in January? What questions were asked? What supports were offered? Did Ms. Hansen have an opportunity to discuss concerns and ask questions? Did the worker meet with Artyom alone? Was there any indication during that visit that things were not going well?
· What were the first signs of difficulties? When did they occur? To whom, if anyone, did Ms. Hansen reach out for assistance? What did she do to try to avoid dissolution of the adoption?
These are just a few of the questions that must be answered.
The conflict for many people in the adoption world is that this is one incident. Horrific, yes, but indicative of all adoptions? Probably not. Does it mean adoption agencies need to do a better job of evaluating and educating prospective parents? Yes. Does it mean the thousands of children who waiting for their adoptions to complete be left in orphanages — anywhere? I hope not.